Since news of his tragic passing at 61, numerous tributes in the past week have highlighted the love felt for chef, author, and travel show host Anthony Bourdain: for his kindness, his intellect, his humour, and for his passionate support for what he believed in.
One Twitter user praised Bourdain’s “very tender alchemy that made one generous to friends and unrelenting to enemies; the best kind of human to be” — his contempt for Henry Kissinger has been well-documented elsewhere, but he was also a powerful ally to those who needed it most.
Latterly, Bourdain was most visibly vocal on behalf of the #MeToo movement, but he has long been regarded as an ardent advocate of cuisines that have been ‘othered’ or ‘exoticised’ by many. Los Angeles-based comedian and writer Jenny Yang’s now-viral tweet, sent the day of Bourdain’s death, kicked off the conversation.
Bourdain never treated our food like he "discovered" it. He kicked it with grandma because he knew that HE was the one that needed to catch up to our brilliance.— Jenny Yang (@jennyyangtv) June 8, 2018
I wish so much for his legacy to take hold in western (mostly white) food media culture. What a loss. I'm so sad.
“Bourdain was different because he was a white guy with a platform who used his storytelling gifts to highlight communities most Americans would never think twice about,” Yang tells Eater. “He wasn’t perfect, but Bourdain used his power to support the stories of immigrants and undocumented workers. These days, communities of colour have been able to call out instances of cultural appropriation in food and culture. But naysayers love to come back and say, ‘Isn’t it all just appreciation?’ No, it’s not. And we can point to Bourdain as someone trying to represent our culture with respect and dignity, a prominent white ally who did his best to appreciate and not appropriate. What he said wasn’t revolutionary to us. He simply said what we’ve been saying all along all day every day and twice on Sunday. But he had the persona and pedigree to be heard.”
Bourdain clearly stood out from many white men abroad — at a time where Western media still mocks and exoticises other countries, he never pointed or laughed at anything beyond Western conventions or reduced locals to a picturesque backdrop or tried to show them how it really should be done. Instead, Bourdain was enthusiastic about learning about new cuisines and cultures, about their history and people, and for almost 20 years, he shared this knowledge on A Cook’s Tour, No Reservations and most recently CNN’s Parts Unknown, showing a love and respect seldom seen on television.
“When I worked at the Sarawak Tourism Board, I handled foreign media requests, most of which were from TV people coming to ‘experience the wild,’” says Dr Anna Sulan Masing, a writer of Iban heritage and co-founder of Chefs of Tomorrow and Voices at the Table. “But no one came to talk about the food, except Bourdain. Food is our identity, our true spirit, what brings the many different tribes and communities together, it’s pride. But not only was someone outside now deeming Sarawak laksa worthy of being spoken about, it was the way he spoke about it — with nerdy, genuine interest. With the honour it deserved.
“There are many issues with a white dude travelling around far-flung places, but he maintained the idea that non-Western food was equal to Western, in quality, technique and talent. And whatever I think, pretty much every time I’m back in Sarawak someone will mention, with pride, how Anthony Bourdain came to Sarawak and ate our laksa.”
“Bourdain had been the only high-profile person to treat all food with the same courtesy as the people who eat and make it outside of the higher echelons of the industry — with genuine, open curiosity and passion to learn and to share the story of food and its culture — something that has very much inspired my own approach to exploring African cuisines,” says Zoe Adjonyoh, writer, founder of Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen, and recent winner of a Culinary Iconoclast award. “The urge to strip back the bollocks and pretensions of the industry and get back to what matters.”
And Bourdain somehow made it look effortless. Asma Khan, chef-restaurateur at Darjeeling Express and Calcutta Canteen in London, and recent winner of the Asian Women of Achievement Entrepreneur Award, praised him for “almost casually taking the viewer by the hand and introducing a new culture, faith and cuisine without all the ‘exotic’ drama. I loved his belief that a shared meal brought people together. It is my philosophy too.”
Despite his focus on showcasing the food and culture of the countries he visited, Bourdain never shied away from addressing their political and social issues. The Season 3 premiere of Parts Unknown on Punjab saw him talk of how the 1947 partition of Pakistan and India affected local farmers, and Sikh professor and scholar Simran Jeet Singh tweeted that this was “one of the first times I saw people who looked like me on television not depicted as violent aggressors or as helpless victims.”
Former BBC Beirut reporter Kim Ghattas was similarly moved by the Emmy-nominated 2007 episode of No Reservations on Beirut. Ghattas had been reporting there at the same time Bourdain was filming, and she said, “We were also nominated for our coverage of the 2006 war, albeit in a different category, and won. While Bourdain did not win … I knew his episode had told my country’s story better than I ever could. I cried when I watched it.”
This was part of the magic of Bourdain — boosting the signals of those that others rarely heard. The very first episode of Parts Unknown was on Myanmar, my motherland, a country long-isolated by its military junta, and I watched with trepidation, which quickly turned to relief and even joy.
As Bourdain ate lahpet thohk with San Zarni Bo, and mohinga with U Thiha Saw, both of whom had been imprisoned as political dissidents, I felt that finally here was someone who had made an effort to understand what was going on around him, who could show the rest of the world the impossible dichotomy of our endless love for food and fun, and constant fear of reprisals, and I too wept as I watched.
As well as being a fervent supporter of lesser-known cuisines and cultures, Bourdain was also valued as a mentor and inspiration for minority voices in the food industry. “I became a food writer in 2002, when the loudest voice in the profession was that of a white woman married to a rich guy, who wrote in a way that made it sound like a hobby,” says Sejal Sukhadwala, one of UK’s first Indian food feature writers. “Guy Dimond, then food and drink editor of Time Out London, gave me a copy of Kitchen Confidential to prove that food writing could be fresh, exciting, unpredictable, witty, irreverent, acerbic, messy, self-deprecating — all the things that it was crying out for at the time. The book was astonishing and eye-opening — I’d never read anything like it before. It has stayed with me.”
The author, cook and TV presenter Simon Majumdar for whose book Eat My Globe Bourdain contributed the cover quote, told Eater: “For me, the real joy of Bourdain was his genuine passion for food of all kinds. He was honest towards all cultures, and he definitely didn’t have rose-tinted taste buds; if he disliked a cuisine, he said so. It says something that we ‘met’ arguing on online food boards about fine dining, but when we actually met it was at a lock-in at The Wenlock Arms where he drank umpteen pints of mild and ate half a dozen packets of pork scratchings.
“The mantle now lays on the rest of us who claim to be food writers and travellers. No one else comes close, but I’m going to keep on trying. We owe Tony that much”.
The combination of Bourdain’s knowledge and empathy was of course felt most intimately by those who met him in person, by those who were mentored by him. Guan Chua is a Cordon Bleu-trained chef and Nyonya supper-club host who was part of Team Bourdain on Channel 4’s The Taste. He worked closely with Bourdain, reaching the quarter-finals.
“What struck me most from the short time I got to know him was his remarkable palate and depth of knowledge of world cuisine. This is a man who could pinpoint the Malaysian Nyonya / Straits-Chinese roots in my Sambal Udang dish without anybody telling him who had cooked up the dish or where it came from.
“World cuisine, in particular the food of the Far East and South-East Asia which was close to his heart has lost one of its biggest champions.”
Bourdain’s passing, from my own experience, is comparable only to that of David Bowie: as worlds both on and offline seemed unified in shock and floods of grief. One comment in particular still plays on my mind: Now that Bourdain is gone, even though most of us never met him, not only have we lost a champion and an ally, it feels like we have lost a friend.
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